SMYRNA, Maine — Most people who run a marathon do it strictly for themselves. They lace up their sneakers to train in the rain and the snow, enduring heat, humidity and muscle cramps for the endorphin rush and accomplishment of running 26 miles.
It was different, however, for Lynel Winters. The marathon she was staging was a run for her husband, Marine 1st Lt. James Zimmerman, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Nov. 2, 2010. The Oct. 30 Marine Corps Marathon she completed was a run for his life.
Although it was difficult at times, it was also “the most inspiring thing” she has ever done, Winters said Saturday.
Zimmerman, a graduate of Greater Houlton Christian Academy and the University of Maine who grew up in Smyrna, was 25 when he died while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
He was deployed to Afghanistan last June after joining the Marines in 2003, while he was still in high school. Zimmerman was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. He and Winters, a Madawaska native, met while both were UMaine students. They were married in 2008. More than 1,000 people attended the Marine’s funeral on Nov. 10 — Veterans Day — last year.
Six months after his death, Winters, a veterinarian, signed up for the marathon in Washington, D.C.
She joined a team of 11 other people to raise money for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.
TAPS provides 24/7 tragedy assistance to anyone who has suffered the loss of a military loved one, regardless of the relationship to the deceased or the circumstance of the death, according to its website. Among its services, TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, case work assistance, crisis intervention, and grief and trauma resources.
Initially, Winters hoped to raise $2,500 for TAPS. When she toed the starting line at the marathon, she had $4,250. The team raised $13,845 in total, making them the third highest fundraisers. Others running for TAPS included more than 95 West Point cadets who ran to honor fallen heroes.
There was also James Brennan, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who ran in memory of his brother, Marine Lance Corporal Julian Brennan, who died in Iraq in 2009; and Monica Velez, of Austin, Texas, who ran to remember her siblings, Army Corporal Jose Alfredo “Freddy” Velez who was killed in action in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004 and Army Specialist Andrew Velez, who died by suicide while deployed to Afghanistan in July 2005. The week of the marathon was both of her brothers’ birthdays, according to information provided by TAPS.
Winters said she was worried in the days going into the marathon, as she had not had a good month.
“I really wasn’t doing very well on my runs, and I started to feel like I was unraveling again,” she said Saturday. “I don’t know if it was just because it was so close to the anniversary of James’ death or just the grueling 20-mile training runs we were doing. But I was nervous going into the marathon.”
The moment she started, however, all of that fear evaporated.
“I looked around and next to me were veterans who had lost a limb and were running with prosthetics,” she said. “And then I saw a veteran who was completing the marathon with a hand cycle, because he was an amputee. There was a guide next to him who was telling him ‘turn left, turn right.’ I realized that he was also blind. The person next to him was giving him directions. It was hard to complain after seeing that. I didn’t even realize that I was running a marathon until around mile 23.”
Colleagues of James joined her team, as did a number of friends. Even their fundraising effort was not untouched by war, however. One member had to withdraw when he got deployed. Winters said her mother and aunt came to watch the marathon, and she felt it was especially good for them to take part in an event that so deeply honored her husband.
“There were good emotions there,” she said. “Before this, they mostly took part in events that were goodbyes for James, such as when he deployed and his funeral. I think it was good for them to be involved in this.”
Support from Mainers also energized Winters. She noted that people who read a Bangor Daily News story about her signing up for the marathon sent letters of encouragement and donations.
“People would always ask Jane [Zimmerman, James' mother] how I was doing with the training,” she said. “You know, when you hear people offer you help and tell you that they would do anything to help you, you sometimes think it is just a courtesy. But I quickly learned that people would really do anything for me, to support me in this. It has just been fantastic.”
In the past few months, Winters said, she has started to “feel a bit more normal.” Before her husband’s death, she was practicing emergency veterinary medicine. In May, she said she was “still really broken” and couldn’t go back to caring for animals who were critically injured. On Saturday, she said she has started to look for work again, and has already set her sights on future fundraising marathons.
Winters said she would love to do a marathon next year, but wants to spread the wealth around and raise money for other veterans organizations, especially those that support wounded soldiers and their families.
“The hardest part is convincing people to do it with me,” she said. “I don’t think I could do it alone. It would just be too emotional.”
She feels that her husband would be proud of what she and her teammates accomplished.
“James was proud of me and his friends and family no matter what they did,” she said. “But he would just be in awe that all of these people did this for him. He would love it.”
The TAPS program is still accepting donations through its fundraising teams. To donate to Winters, visit TAPS.kintera.org/mcm2011/1stltzimmerman.